Deborah Verdon did not expect to end up in advocacy, yet she has dedicated 20 years of her life to it as executive officer for Grampians DisAbility Advocacy.
Under her leadership, GDA went from covering Ararat and Stawell to covering 11 local government areas.
When Ms Verdon started in 2000, she came into an empty office. There was no one there for a handover, no one to show her the ropes.
"It was daunting," she said.
"I wasn't exactly sure what the role was.
"But I just read. I read whatever documents I could get my hands on.
"I started off as an advocate and a coordinator because there was basically only me."
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Ms Verdon said at age 10, there were three areas she wanted to work in as an adult.
"Journalist, social work and teacher," she said.
Before working at Grampians DisAbility Advocacy, Ms Verdon worked for eight years at The Ararat Advertiser and before that had worked as a teacher on and off when she finished university.
Ms Verdon said although courses for advocate work are far and few between, they are some critical qualities needed as an advocate.
"You don't go to university to do an advocacy course.
"The main things you need is an ability to communicate, a sense of social justice and a desire to help people in need. The rest you learn as you go along, at least I did."
Advocacy is a steep learning curve, needing to deal with complex matters, legislation and the NDIS.
"In its more basic form, advocacy means to stand beside somebody," Ms Verdon said.
Ms Verdon said GDA has moved further across Victoria thanks to federal funding, though she claims she had minimal to do with it.
"There has been an increase in government funding over those years," she said.
"I just wrote the grants.
"What keeps me going is that the need is still there."
One of the largest grants GDA received was the 2019 $1.4 million grant for information, linkages and capacity building for peer to peer support.
"It's the biggest grant we had received and it will allow use to do such a lot of good work across the 11 LGA's we cover and with that we were able to employ more staff to run the programs," Ms Verdon said.
These programs will help develop confidence and skills for people with disabilities to run their own lives.
"It's been an awful lot of work especially during COVID-19. It's very satisfying to see it up and running," Ms Verdon said.
Through advocacy work has developed significantly during the past 20 years, Ms Verdon said more work needs to be done.
"Majority of institutions closing has been a wonderful thing. People now have the opportunity to participate in opportunities they couldn't before.
"Sporting clubs and community organisations have become more welcoming of people with disabilities. People have become more aware of disability issues, people in the community have become more understanding of the human rights for people with disabilities. There have been more opportunities with employment and more representation in the media.
"There has been a huge increase in understanding of what advocacy is. The recognition of our role and it's importance have grown."
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But Ms Verdon said some issues have remained since she began 20 years ago.
"There are still disappointing access issues, an inability to grapple with things like access to public transport, buildings, roads and toilets in every community," she said.
"There are many pockets where no efforts are being made.
"It's disappointing. We have the Royal Commission into Abuse, Neglect, Violence and Exploitation of People with Disability.
"It's pretty clear a lot of stuff isn't done correctly, in fact it's criminal behaviour hidden behind closed doors. That was true when I started and it's still true now."
Ms Verdon said she still has a few years left in her yet before she wants to retire.
"It's quite a demanding role. But it's incredibly rewarding as well," she said.
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